Congo Basin: FRM relies on acacia to develop plantations on the Mbé plateau

We relay below an article published on the website Makanisi on April 16, 2023 on one of the plantation projects carried by FRM in Central Africa.

(c) FRM

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The Société Plantations Forestières Batéké Brazzaville (SPF2B) covers 10,000 hectares in the northern part of the Pool Department, straddling the districts of Ignié and Ngabé. The estate, which includes 5 plantation blocks and a nursery, is located in an area of grassy and shrubby savannahs, with very little cultivation. The project has a dual purpose: economic and ecological. The first aims at the production of timber, charcoal, palm oil and cassava; the second aims at carbon impact and biodiversity improvement. Agroforestry is practiced in some blocks to allow people to grow cassava. A nursery provides the seeds and seedlings necessary for the activities of SPF2B and other subsidiaries of the Forêt Ressources Management (FRM) group.

Paul Bertaux (Technical Director / Environment, Social and Governance) spoke to Makanisi about the objectives and challenges of this project, which is one of the five FRM plantation programs in Central Africa.

Interviewed in Brazzaville by Muriel Devey Malu-Malu

Makanisi: Can you present the area in which SPF2B is located?

Paul Bertaux: SPF2B is located on the Mbé plateau, which is the first of the four Batékés plateaus, which form a sort of huge sand castle, flat in the middle and surrounded by hilly areas and rivers. From the Léfini River, the Nsah Plateau spreads out, and further west, the smaller Koukouya and Djambala plateaus. The rest of the area is occupied by hills and rivers. This vast and very homogeneous region, which was formed 20 to 50 million years ago by the deposition of Kalahari aeolian sands over 300 m thick, covers 120,000 km2, i.e., one-fifth the size of France, and encompasses four countries: Gabon, the two Congos and Angola.

3000 years ago, this was an area of open forest, occupied by indigenous peoples who lived by hunting and gathering. Several Bantu migrations followed until the 15th century. The Bantus, who were farmers and herders, preferred to settle in the open forests of the Bateke plateaus, which they cleared, rather than in the impassable dense forests of the north. The time of their migration corresponded to a drying of the climate that had weakened the existing forests. The savannah of the Bateke plateaus, once more populated than today, is essentially "anthropized," i.e., artificially maintained by human activities, including deforestation, which is still widely practiced, slash-and-burn agriculture with fallowing, and the widespread use of fire for hunting.


What are the goals of SPF2B?

We have two objectives, one economic and the other ecological, which are linked. These are also arguments for developing this type of project. The plantations allow the production of timber (sawing and peeling) and charcoal, the sale of which provides income that finances the project. This is the economic component.

The forest plantation also has a positive impact on the environment, through the biodiversity it brings and the carbon fixation it allows. In addition, charcoal from sustainably managed plantations will gradually replace charcoal from deforestation, which is destroying the natural forests around Brazzaville. This positive carbon impact will be added to that of the plantation itself. This is the ecological dimension of the project.  This type of project also allows us to generate carbon credits that are sold on the voluntary market or that offset the CO2 emissions of our industrial and financial partners.


How and with which species can we restore a forest in a savannah zone?

After a drought period, the climate has become humid again, with rainfall between 1400 and 1800 millimeters. From 1000 mm of rainfall, the forest is the ecosystem that should naturally re-establish itself in these latitudes. However, the practice of shifting cultivation and fire for hunting keeps a very poor and not a very biodiverse herbaceous savannah. The agroforestry model developed in Central Africa makes it possible to reintroduce a forest ecosystem, while developing a more sustainable and efficient agriculture and producing sustainable charcoal. It is afforested with exotic species, including acacia, as local species are not able to produce large quantities of wood.


Why acacia?

Acacia can grow in full light, which is well suited to the savannah, and to grow rapidly on sandy soils while enriching them with organic matter and nitrogen. It is a member of the legume family that naturally fixes atmospheric nitrogen through its roots. The production of timber or charcoal, which can be considered depending on the silvicultural models and the species of acacia planted, meets our economic component. The ecological objective is assured because, in the long run, the biodiversity of acacia plantations becomes much greater than that of herbaceous savannahs. The plantations allow, in fact, the installation of a forest type undergrowth, the fixation of a large quantity of carbon and offer a refuge to the macrofauna. Our plantations, which are planted on non-forested land (grassy savannahs to shrublands) with very little cultivation, do not cause deforestation.


Is the same type of acacia used to make lumber and charcoal?

There are two types of acacia with different silviculture’s and purposes. Acacia auriculiformis is a small tree, rarely exceeding 15 meters in height. It is adapted to produce charcoal, which is highly appreciated by housewives, and for agroforestry. It can cohabit with cassava for twelve to eighteen months. Acacia mangium is used for timber. It can reach 30 meters in height and up to 50 cm in diameter. It is allowed to grow longer so that its wood can be used for sawing, peeling and plywood.


How long will it take for local forest species to reappear?

After ten years, local forest species will naturally re-establish themselves among the acacias. From the twentieth year, the plantation will be "irregularized" by thinning (partial cuts) to make openings and facilitate the regeneration of local species, either naturally or assisted by planting. The process will result in a mixed forest of multiple ages, richer in biodiversity than the savannah. Scientific studies prove that biodiversity is higher under plantations than in the savannah. Every year students from Congo (8 in 2023), France, Belgium and DRC do internships with us to study the understory vegetation and natural forests included in our domains that we protect. We have also established several partnerships with different Congolese, French and Belgian universities. Eventually, this various research will be the object of scientific publications.


Do the species that will reappear come from the forest that originally existed?

Yes. About 15% of our domains are occupied by natural forest islands. A student from the École Régionale Post-universitaire d'Aménagement et de Gestion Intégrée des Forêts et Territoires Tropicaux (ERAIFT) in Kinshasa is currently installing a network of one-hectare plots in the different forest formations of our plantation programs to monitor the natural evolution of the forest patches. We are adopting the same approach on the SPF2B site to monitor the evolution of the flora under plantation. We will also install a fauna observation system to accurately quantify the fauna species that find refuge in our plantations and surrounding areas where we have already observed the beginning of mammal repopulation (several species of antelope).


In industry, which sectors are particularly interested in wood?

Wood is a carbon-neutral material that is of interest to several industries to decarbonize their activities. In addition to the traditional timber industries, new industries, including construction and organic chemistry, are interested in this raw material. Today, new wood processing technologies make it possible to manufacture structural wood for buildings and towers up to 100 m high. This is the case in North America and Europe.

The construction sector is thus moving from the era of traditional materials, such as concrete, glass, steel or brick, which have a very high carbon impact, to the era of wood, which is more carbon neutral. This is a return to the roots, as wood has historically been the main construction material. New technologies and the necessary decarbonization of our industries are bringing it back to the forefront. Wood is also an insulator, easier to process and lighter to transport and assemble.

Wood is also of interest to the organic chemistry sector, to switch from oil to biomass and replace all plastic objects and other oil derivatives.

In order not to exclude agriculture from our wood and carbon market-oriented projects, we have opted for agroforestry plantations that allow us to produce both timber and food crops.


How and from whom did you acquire the land that your domain covers?

In terms of land, there are two actors: the landowners and the farmers. The landowners have the rights to the land that they rent to the farmers for their crops. SPF2B's transaction with the landowners lasted about ten years before reaching a land agreement. We are now the owners of our land. Other procedures exist, notably the emphyteutic leases with the State, which follow a transaction with the landowners on their usage rights.

Very far from the national road, on the edge of which are concentrated the villages, our domain covers a space little inhabited. There is therefore no problem with the populations living near our domains who continue their agricultural activities in the vast spaces of the Batékés savannah.


What economic alternatives do you propose to the populations?

First of all, we offer them jobs in our plantations. Our employment policy favors local hiring. Including the nursery and plantations, SPF2B employs between 300 and 400 people living in the area during the high season. It only resorts to external personnel for jobs requiring skills that do not exist locally.

In addition, within the framework of the agroforestry component, the populations have free access to land that we prepare and plow free of charge, where they can plant cassava whose harvest belongs to them. The area granted ranges from 0.5 to 5 hectares per farmer, and they are simply asked to maintain the trees along with their cassava during the first year.

In addition to the acacia forest plantations, you are targeting oil palm...

We are currently developing the oil palm sector. Close to our estate, in the Ignié district, is the GTC-Capfor palm grove, which produces palm oil. Together, we proposed to donors to create an oil palm production basin, based on our industrial plantations and a network of small village palm groves. The supply of improved plant material is ensured by our nursery, which has obtained approval from PalmElite, a subsidiary of CIRAD, to resell improved oil palm seeds. However, as donors prefer to work with institutions, this project has not yet been completed. Nevertheless, we continue to propose it and will gradually implement it.

And also honey and other products...

The bees, which had deserted the area, are gradually settling in the acacia plantations where numerous swarms are observed. We have also observed this in plantations in the DRC. The French NGO, APIFLORDEV, which is very active in Central Africa, will assist us on the technical level. A feasibility study on the honey sector has been launched. Acacia honey is highly sought after on the local and regional markets. Many European countries, including France, import honey massively. Other products are being considered, including essential oils. We have just planted a pilot with eucalyptus citriodora.

Our strategy is therefore clearly oriented towards diversifying our products/markets, while maximizing the positive impacts and social and environmental benefits of our planting programs.

Read the original article on Makanisi website